In the throes of the action, I’ll be like every other fan, intrigued by Racing 92’s Heineken Cup visit to Thomond Park tomorrow.
It’s a fixture I am heavily invested in, a club I represented and love, hosting the one that gave me my first break as a coach.
It’s not a well-held secret that returning to Racing 92 was a consideration for me after my time with the Crusaders. That I didn’t go back to Paris hasn’t affected my relationship with the people there one bit, and nor would I have expected it to.
In conversations with the head coach, Laurent Travers, we got around to talking about Mike Prendergast.
People might know how much time I have for Mike as a person and as a coach. I had no hesitation recommending him to Laurent when Racing were hunting a good attack coach.
It’s nice that Racing would hire Mike on my word, and all the indications are that he is doing very well there.
Racing is Mike’s first ‘massive’ club. He’s 42 now and it’s not like he’s had a career path sprinkled with rose petals. Anything he’s got, he’s worked hard for and earned.
He didn’t have the big name and reputation as a player because he came through at Munster at the same time and the same age as Peter Stringer. At best, he was going to be number two at scrum-half.
He knew he had to move on to get proper game time and he took himself off to Gloucester and Bourgoin as a player and then, after a stint back with Young Munster, he pursued a coaching path through Grenoble and Oyonnax — nothing handy there — before securing a position at Stade Francais.
Even then, he was joining a big club at a very difficult moment, so it’s not like he’s had a series of cushy numbers.
He has done plenty of bóithríns to get to the Champs-Élysées. At best he was going to be No 2 to Strings so he took off to Gloucester, Bourgoin as a player. As a coach, he’s been to Grenoble, Oyonnax, then Stade Francais at a most difficult time.
It hasn’t been plain sailing at Racing either. They lost their opening Top 14 game at home to Bayonne 24-17, and have won only three of their opening nine domestic fixtures. La Rochelle edged them 12-6 but I know from conversations that Mike is making an impact.
Last Sunday, they delivered a hugely accurate performance in their dismantling of Saracens.
It was all there in terms of attack — Finn Russell taking on defences, Teddy Thomas and Virimi Vakatawa having fun — I mean real fun, to the point where Vakatawa was actually smiling and laughing against the European champions!
The former Sevens star has brought his classy World Cup form home with him. He was sublime last Sunday. Just in cruise mode, laughing at the ease of it all.
He is a veritable machine. Watch out, Munster.
The last time I was there with Racing in October 2017, it was scoreless after an hour and was a real arm-wrestle. Quite a few of the visiting team that day will be in Limerick again tomorrow, so they know what to expect. Theatmosphere won’t unsteady them.
Plus, they will want to play for Donnacha and Zebo so it’s a big day for both teams. Donnacha was excellent in his own steady way against Saracens. Doing all the simple tidying, securing ball, really well. Winning kick-offs, dominating out of touch, setting up the maul. He’s been a shrewd piece of business for Racing.
Looking in the stands at La Defense Arena last weekend, they still have some talent to come back into the mix.
Leone Nakarawa would be a big miss, however, if he is unavailable again tomorrow. Reports indicate he was late returning to the club after the World Cup, having returned home to Fiji in the meantime.
I will say nothing more than this: having been to Fiji quite recently, I can certainly attest to the leisurely way of life there: No worry, no hurry, it’s Fiji time.
There’s a sense of a European Cup up for grabs again
Suddenly everyone’s looking at and talking about Saracens in a different way. I’m not talking salary caps — more the manner of their comprehensive defeat in Paris last Sunday, which seems to have given the chasing pack a new lease of life.
There’s a sense of a European Cup up for grabs again now. Leinster, Clermont, Munster, Racing, everyone’s perked up.
From the things I hear, Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree, who I toured on the Lions with, have made an early impact at Munster.
There are examples in sport of a coach giving confidence to players and both are doing that. I’m not even in the building and I can feel it.
Presence and gravitas is huge is sport. Larkham comes to the top of the room on a Monday or a Friday and does his presentation. Unless you’re dead inside, you’d want to play for him, wouldn’t you?
I didn’t include Lyon in the group of teams eyeing Saracens’ spot at the summit. They got a belt from Northampton, which was a surprise.
La Rochelle were down there recently on a Sunday in the Top 14 and there was a good vibe about the place, a degree of confidence in what they are building.
So that was a good reality check as they get ready to entertain one of the top sides in Europe.
Tomorrow launches the season for Leo Cullen and Leinster, an opportunity of a statement win in France against the Top 14 leaders.
With their history in this competition, that’s exactly what I expect. This is one of the six biggest games of their season and they will not be off it in Lyon.
French still don’t get the Irish passion for Europe
You’d think the amount of times I have mentioned it that Racing’s 30-10 win over Saracens was the result of the opening weekend.
For me, it was Toulouse’s come-from-behind win over Gloucester at Kingsholm, only because it was a very un-French thing to do in the Heineken Cup. Montpellier losing to Connacht at the Sportsground?
Now that was classic Top 14 in Europe.
Attitude is one thing, culture and tradition another. Montpellier’s largesse was of little use to them in Galway unless they were prepared to dig in and let their attitude win out before their quality took over.
That’s why Toulouse were so impressive in the way they ground out the win at Kingsholm, 25-20. Far too often, some French players don’t appreciate what these European days and nights mean to Irish players — three home games a year for the provinces that are bigger than anything else.
Connacht were licking their lips and the Sportsground was frothing at the thought of Montpellier and their big bank balance.
Conversely, Toulouse played for each other at Gloucester, continued to believe and turned a bad situation into a positive. They were bloody good — and ironically they are at home to Connacht tomorrow.
La Rochelle? Well, on 53 minutes last Saturday at home to Exeter, we were 14-5 down but had all the momentum.
A three-man overlap presented itself but we threw an excitable pass, Henry Slade picked it off, and suddenly it’s 21-5. It should have been 14-12 with the crowd beginning to hum. It took the life out of the challenge, but in truth we didn’t use any of the key unwritten home advantage rules — score first, keep them struggling to breath.
We gave Exeter the first score, we weren’t ruthless enough and that gets exposed at this level.
I hope I am not losing my sanity when I say there wasn’t really a gulf in class between the teams but on Sunday, we have to win in Sale.
If I thought some of our players and supporters were already looking beyond Sale to the Top 14 game against Castres next weekend, that would be hugely disappointing.
The Champions Cup is something that needs to excite the taste buds of French players a bit more.